Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, France, 1789
There was a significant spiritual triumph in France in August 1789, which seemed odd when one considers that Christianity was being suppressed. France had reached the breaking point where the lower classes absolutely refused to take from the poor and give to the rich. The country had been in the throes of poverty for a good many years, and the social upset begun during the Wars of Religion had never been set to rights. France was a country with an ax to grind and torches to wave, and one got the sense that the whole thing would blow up in their faces and plunge the world into chaos at any given moment. One just never knew when.
So why should Huguenots, of which, despite centuries of persecution, there were still a significant number, be involved? Perhaps because they understood the desire for freedom better than anyone might imagine. Being French Protestants (a term which seemed oxymoronic for much of French history) meant that they knew what it was like to be stripped of the most basic civil rights.
The Treaty of Versailles in 1787 gave Protestants the right to call themselves French citizens, but there were words left unsaid and liberties left un-granted. Perhaps, as the Revolution dawned, French Protestants determined that they would finally fight heroically for that country which they had always loved but which had always hated them so. So when they learned that the French aristocracy was demeaning the poor, perhaps they aligned themselves with the unfortunates --- the very same needy French Catholics who would have once preferred to see them dead rather than look upon them.
So what exactly had the Edict of Versailles in 1787 accomplished? It was a blessing, but there were loopholes. It stated that French Protestants had a right to claim citizenship while still favoring Catholics. The first draft of a new edict called ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ would hopefully sweep away the last prejudices. People eagerly gathered to hear the words. Their journey of persecution was soon at an end. One can imagine that the ghosts of countless Huguenot victims, including the thousands lost in the horrendous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, hovered overhead as they waited for two and a half centuries of bloodshed to finally, finally be over.
People listened with hushed breath to the tenth article of the edict: “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” That was impossible to misinterpret. Of course, in subsequent years there were pockets of persecution, and it was not until 1793 that the Declaration would be expounded upon, but no longer was a French Protestant without recourse. If he was assaulted, he could be compensated. If he was discriminated against, the law stated that he had the right to demand equality. Though the ‘Reign of Terror’ that France would soon host was nothing to praise, the declaration of 1789 was a blessing to French Protestants. It would shape the future as well.
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